OLYMPIA — Starting Memorial Day weekend, boaters heading to Washington waterways may encounter new mandatory stops by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to check for aquatic invasive species.
The long-planned emphasis patrol, which will take place throughout the summer, coincides with the recent seizure of a boat in Spokane contaminated with quagga mussels from Nevada’s Lake Mead. A multi-state tracking effort and tips from alert citizens led to the seizure by WDFW enforcement officers.
The 24-foot boat has been decontaminated to avoid the spread of the tiny non-native mollusks, which are prohibited in Washington to protect native fish and wildlife and water systems.
“These invasive mussels, first found in Lake Mead in 2007, have already spread to other waterways in several western states, and continue to move closer to Washington every year,” said Allen Pleus, WDFW aquatic invasive species coordinator. “That’s a big concern, because if they get into our waters, they will likely spread rapidly and cause much damage.”
Importation of aquatic invasive species is a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to $5,000 in fines and up to a year in jail. Knowingly bringing such species into Washington is a felony and can result in even greater fines and jail time.
The Spokane case is still under investigation and no charges have been filed, said Sergeant Eric Anderson, WDFW aquatic invasive species enforcement coordinator.
“To avoid more close calls like this, our enforcement emphasis this year will be to conduct random, mandatory road stops of people hauling any size boat,” Anderson said.
Since Washington passed a law in 2002 prohibiting importation of aquatic invasive species, WDFW, in cooperation with the Washington State Patrol, has mainly worked to inspect commercially hauled watercraft at the state’s port of entry weigh stations. But that only stopped a handful of very large vessels, Anderson said.
“In the last few years we’ve conducted more periodic vessel inspections during fishing seasons at our water access sites where information about these species is posted,” Anderson said. “Now we’re moving to an even more aggressive enforcement effort. Boats found with banned species could be seized for decontamination.”
Recreational boaters and anglers should always carefully inspect and clean their boats and equipment before moving their vessels from one body of water to another, Pleus said.
“Boat owners must take responsibility for their vessels if Washington is going to be successful at keeping aquatic invasive species from spreading to state waters,” Pleus said.
Once established, non-native mussels and other aquatic invasive species can multiply quickly and threaten native fish and wildlife by consuming available food and smothering other species. They spread by attaching to boats or other water-based equipment, and clog water-intake systems at power plants, irrigation districts, public water suppliers, and other facilities.
“If these species become established in the Columbia River system it could result in billions of dollars of economic damage to everything from hydro-electric dams to municipal water systems and put further strain on ESA-listed species that live there,” Pleus said.
Zebra and quagga mussels are native to the Caspian Sea. They entered the Great Lakes in the mid 1980s in ship ballast water, and have since spread to more than 20 states, including California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah, and two Canadian provinces. Both zebra and quagga mussels are easily transported on boats and trailers because they can live out of water for up to a month.
For more information on all aquatic invasive species, visit WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/ais.